Fiction Reviews

The Emperor of All Things

(2013) Paul Witcover, Bantam, £14.99, hrdbk, 448pp, ISBN 978-0-593-07070-3


Oh this is good, very good indeed, and I really was not expecting that. Set in England in 1758 but written by an American who used to write for DC comics, this could have got very messy, but somehow doesnít. And since the cover tells me the book is a mix of Philip Pullman, Susanna Clarke, Neal Stephenson and Justin Cronin that could have been all kinds of wrong, but fortunately it is not like that at all. And they forgot to mention the very generous dash of Terry Pratchett which crops up from time to time. The Pullman reference is a bit of a stretch (and I donít get the Neal Stephenson allusion at all) but the Susanna Clarke comparison is a good one and this book has a very similar tone to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

This book is witty and well written, with some strong and memorable characters and a plot which reveals itself slowly and compels you to read on. Daniel Quare is a journeyman of the Worshipful Company of Watchmakers in a world where regulating time Ė and the measurement of it Ė is seen as vital to keep enemies both mortal and mystical at bay. In this world is a watch with a terrible secret. It doesnít tell the time, doesnít seem to have a winding mechanism, yet when activated seems to work with devastating consequences. When it falls into the hands of the Worshipful Company of Watchmakers, and in particular the good/bad Master Mephistopheles, you just know thereís going to be trouble. Thereís a Zorro-like spy, Grimalkin, with a surprising secret identity, a Lord with an obsessive interest in watches, a Grandmaster time regulator with a hunched back and a fondness for cats and a strange clock tower in a mysterious village where dragons are said to lurk. Nothing is what it seems and Quare quickly discovers he canít trust anything, particularly time itself. Time Ė the emperor of all things - binds this whole novel together and the whole book is full of observations about its nature, but the author never labours his points, letting the characters make his arguments for him.

And that really isnít giving anything away. There is plenty of action in there, but the characters are strong and the storytelling very deft. There was a point in the middle, where the author seemed to be rambling away with an extended story within a story, that I thought this book was a good idea searching for a storyline, rather like the TV series Lost, where by season three even the writers admitted they were making it up as they were going along,. But Witcover pulls it all together in a very satisfying way. There are plenty of revelations along the way, most of them unanticipated, and a seamless change of tone from action-adventure to metaphysical fantasy. If Iíve got one criticism, itís that the book ends on a cliff-hanger and with no second book in sight (yet) that makes an awful long wait to find out whatís going on.

Mark Bilsborough

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